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Increasing fan loyalty in English football

Financial pressure within English football are making it necessary for clubs to start focusing on innovative ways to engender fan loyalty, generate revenues and reduce costs. Many football fans want to show support for their club in a more holistic way than merely buying tickets. As clubs develop brand propositions to maximize the financial value of their supporters perhaps the greater challenge is to see if they can provide fans with what they actually want rather than simply offering what can be sold.

How many football clubs can truly say all their current promotional activities have a clearly defined customer value proposition and are communicated in the most effective manner? Too many commercial activities represent short term 'fire and forget' promotions leaving supporters feeling that the club, rather than themselves as consumers, has benefited most from the transaction. In an environment where companies across a variety of sectors compete to derive greater financial returns from their association with football, clubs need to compete more effectively in their treatment of supporters as consumers. The adoption of a consumer led approach is the only way for clubs to extract maximum financial value from their supporters.

Financial pressures within football have already made it necessary for clubs to start focusing on innovative ways to engender fan loyalty, generate revenues and reduce costs. The following examples describe ways in which different clubs have approached these issues.

  • The introduction of new card technologies linking stadium access devises with fan loyalty applications have allowed Bolton and Chelsea to reduce their ticketing costs whilst reward supporters for their extended spend both inside and outside of the ground. Cost savings through smaller print runs are clear, not so the value of these cards in engendering supporter 'loyalty' to the club. Does the expense of administering a 'points means prizes' scheme actually make supporters more loyal to the club or are they more interested in collecting of points for the rewards themselves? To be truly effective any loyalty scheme that links customers to sales must be aligned with club sponsorship. Where sponsors are increasingly looking to quantify the returns on their investment an ability to determine the financial value of a supporter base would be invaluable.
  • Clubs have been successful in introducing promotions that appeal to the emotional rather than transactional relationships supporters have with their clubs. By auctioning squad places or allowing access to the manager's half time team talk both Preston and most recently QPR have been successful in generating new sources of revenues.
  • The internet represents as a cost effective channel to communicate enriched club content to an extended supporter base. Reading have increased site traffic and reduced costs in servicing ticket sales by operating a pricing policy that significantly discounts on line sales. A key consideration in operating such a channel strategy is to avoid attempting to service customers exclusively via one in particular. Creating a single view of the supporter and servicing them in accordance with their own channel preferences must be the desired goal of clubs.
  • Like the internet, mobile messaging has been widely used as an added value service primarily to deliver tailored and timely content to registered supporters. The real financial value for clubs will come in their ability to generate revenue by stimulating supporter interaction within the stadium environment using attractive and innovative match day telephony competitions

Whilst any initiative can create short term value real sustainable financial returns over the extended period can only be achieved when all commercial activity is created out of clearly defined customer value propositions themselves integral to the overall business strategy. Every promotion should be viewed as extensions of the club and actively supported by club staff rather than left to work in isolation from the real business of the football club. As with any other business model for securing future club revenues, such as investing in developing young player talent, marketing activities must be consistently applied and given time to deliver.

This requirement for clubs to support for their commercial activities from top to bottom does not necessarily mean it is also appropriate for them all to invest in a brand strategy with associated brand values. Supporters already relate to their clubs in a variety of ways, how support for a particular club defines an individual consumer may have more to do with way the game is played on the pitch than any brand values. Any measurable effect of brand activity on revenue generation may therefore be difficult to quantify when supporter interest has more to do with the style of football displayed or simply the historic ties the club has with the local community.

The more ambitions and innovative football clubs become in their approach to revenue generation and cost saving activities the greater the potential rewards. The idea that clubs only compete in areas where supporters perceive a real point of difference between them is a difficult concept for many within football to accept. Does Nottingham Forest really compete with Notts County in the eyes of both sets of supporters on the quality of paper for the match programme or providers of their utilities?

Where clubs can enter into arrangements for the provision of support services that are consistent across all significant economies of scale and cost savings can be achieved. Clearly for such an approach to be successful these services must be tailored to the specific requirements of each individual club. Through collusion rather than competition their delivery costs can be spread across any number of clubs and in some instances even mitigated entirely.

As all businesses football clubs are run to maximize revenues and control cost to protect and improve their long term prospects. As sporting organizations, rather than commercial ventures, football clubs must aspire to the very highest levels of team success. The costs of such aspirations may be in excess of the levels of revenue clubs can reasonably expect to generate from their supporter base. This should not, however, stop clubs developing sustainable commercial relationships with supporters to create long term value.

Commercial activity must be based on delivering truly consumer focused offers. Simply providing the most convenient product or services the club thinks it can sell will not deliver real customer value over an extended period. Any investment in new technologies must support a customer value proposition and only take place where the expected returns are clearly measurable.

Perhaps most importantly, clubs need to challenge long held beliefs on how they relate both to their supporters and other clubs. By treating fans as consumers and entering into collective working relationships for non competitive services each individual clubs will have a greater chance of maximizing their own potential gains.

Nick Chambers

The author is an associate of pgw Ltd. This article was first published in Stadia Magazine, November 2002.

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